How REI Launched And Built A Movement Far Larger Than The Brand Itself
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On November 27 in 2015, REI did the unthinkable. The nation’s largest consumer co-op and specialty outdoor retailer announced its plans to close its doors on Black Friday at all of the 143 retail locations, headquarters, and two distribution centers, and instead pay its 12,000 employees not to work, and to be outside. The rationale was that rather than ward off the swarms of potentially violent shoppers vying to over-consume on Black Friday, they saw more value in allowing their employees to do what they love most, which is to enjoy the great outdoors. As Jerry Stritzke, president and CEO of REI said,“Black Friday is a perfect time to remind ourselves of the essential truth that life is richer, more connected, and complete when you choose to spend it outside. We’re closing our doors, paying our employees to get out there, and inviting America to Opt Outside with us because we love great gear, but we are even more passionate about the experiences it unlocks.” In a letter to his members, Stritzke quotes outdoor visionary John Muir, who stated in 1901, “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home.”
Launched with two videos explaining the concept and a contagious meme generator, which encouraged fans to share their outdoor experiences on social media, the Opt Outside idea quickly became a movement that was growing exponentially. It garnered substantial media attention as more and more morning shows covered the initiative and many other companies chose to close their doors on the same day. Ultimately, the effort generated 2.7 billion PR impressions, inspired more than a hundred other retailers to close for a day, and got, by REI’s estimate, 1.4 million people to enjoy the great outdoors rather than head off shopping that day.
REI’s gratitude for their participation is clear on their website that says thank you to all 1,408,117 people. All of them participated by sharing photos of what they did when they chose to Opt Outside. As the home page of the website states, “when we announced our decision to close our doors and head outside on Black Friday we had no idea that so many of you would choose to stand with us and enjoy the day outside with friends and family. We’re deeply humbled by it and grateful for your support. We’re also inspired by your passion. That’s why in January we’ll begin a series of conversations, events, actions, and stories that explore what it means to truly Opt Outside and put the outdoors at the center of a life. We look forward to having you join us.” What began as an internal employee initiative quickly became a movement that took on a life of its own that will continue to build the brand’s reputation, member community, and ultimately, its business.
What is tremendously instructive about the success of Opt Outside is the authenticity with how REI approached the idea. As Ben Steele, the company’s SVP and CCO stated,“In the midst of a big holiday brainstorming session, the head of our merchandising group said,‘We could never do it, but what if we close on Black Friday?’” Steele continues,“Obviously, at face value it seems crazy, but it was all about giving our people the day off and inviting others to join us. Part of this job is about storytelling, but when you can take an action and show people rather than just telling them, it can be really powerful.”
REI doubled its efforts in 2016 uniting more than 450 non-profit, government and corporate partners to inspire millions of people to hit the trails, parks and waterways on November 25. Clearly these efforts worked, as REI saw participation numbers jump from 1.4 million in 2015, to 6 million in 2016. On the strength of the brand’s commitment to its employees and customer community, as well as the values it shares in relation to preserving and protecting the outdoors, Opt Outside has come to epitomize a movement larger than themselves. This was formalized in a new outdoor activity finder launched to help people reconnect with family and friends this holiday season and declare support. What’s more, during Opt Outside, experts from the outdoor community shared insights into topics such as the power of nature to heal, the value of childhood play outdoors, the value of nurturing and conserving our public lands and the increasing need for diversity in the outdoors.As CEO, Stritzke stated in 2016, “The moment we announced our decision last year, people who build their lives around the outdoors really embraced the idea of reclaiming Black Friday. It took on a life of its own and became about much more than REI. Opt Outside should be a platform for the nonprofits and public servants who are on the front lines of the outdoor community. They’re the ones who make the outdoors accessible for everyone. That’s why, from today onward, we’re going to lift them up as the official spokespeople for Opt Outside.”
REI’s Opt Outside initiative signals a powerful demonstration in community leadership. What the company realized is that consumers are more media-savvy than ever, are fully capable of managing sophisticated relationships with brands and can expose or ignore companies that fail to demonstrate their values and deliver against them. REI put employees and consumers at the center of their idea and acted as the celebrant rather than celebrity of its community.
At its core, what the concept demonstrated was the company’s commitment to its core values and the importance of an authentic human dialogue with its community to inspire their participation and activation. Further, it demonstrated their powerful commitment to those values because the company put significant skin in the game by foregoing the revenue that it would otherwise have generated on Black Friday, choosing to celebrate its values instead. It showed how calendar mainstays can become cultural flashpoints that build company reputation, consumer goodwill and loyalty, and shifts in thinking and behavior.
Ultimately, the success of the idea led to a significant rise in REI membership, a significant return on investment for a business-based cooperative model in which customers serve as both employees and owners of the company. Not to mention the value of employee buy-in, in terms of the ability to attract new talent, maximize employee productivity and increase retention, the Opt Outside initiative has added enormous bottom-line value.
The concept and how it was executed is a powerful demonstration of an inclusive “we” mindset that exhibits a way of being in the world that all brand stakeholders want to be a part of. It was apparent to everyone who took part that the effort was less about rejecting Black Friday and more about embracing the values and experiences that truly matter to REI. It’s that integrity, intent, and execution that made their community leadership so successful.